Obituary of Mary Clerkin Higgins

December 25, 2020

Mary Clerkin Higgins, renowned stained glass artist and conservator, died on Christmas morning in Manhattan, following a four-year struggle with breast cancer. Steven, her husband of forty-four years, and their son, Walker, were by her side.

Mary was born Nov. 16, 1954 in Queens, New York, the daughter of Thomas and Margaret Walker Clerkin. Her family moved to the village of Sandy Creek, New York when she was a young child. She graduated from Sandy Creek Central School in 1972 and earned a BA from Fordham University at Lincoln Center in 1976. She and Steven were married on Oct. 9, 1976.

Mary was one of the nation's leading artists and conservators of stained glass, entrusted with conserving panels dating as far back as the twelfth century, up to the present day, for public and private collections around the world. In addition, she was an award-winning artist whose original works received several awards, among them inclusion in the Corning Museum of Glass's prestigious annual survey New Glass Review 36 (2015).

In 1976, she began an apprenticeship with Melville Greenland at his studio in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. She rose quickly to the position of lead conservator for Greenland and, in 1986, founded Clerkin Higgins Stained Glass Inc. in Brooklyn, New York. Over the years, she became a close collaborator with Rowan LeCompte, the renowned artist responsible, among much else, for the West Rose and clerestory windows at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Mary worked on over a dozen of Rowan's Cathedral commissions and was wholly responsible for the fabrication at her Brooklyn studio of two large clerestory projects – "The Suffering and Redemption of Job," and "The Faith of the Hebrew People."

Mary presented her research at many conferences across North America and Europe and was a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC). She was a co-founder and past president of the American Glass Guild (AGG), receiving the AGG Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. She contributed the chapter on "Origins, Materials, and the Glazier's Art" to Stained Glass: From Its Origins to the Present (Abrams, 2003) and wrote the preface to Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke (The History Press, 2010). Mary was featured on NPR's "Science Friday" website and in Peter Swanson's films Let There Be Light (2012) and Rowan LeCompte: A Life in Light (2020). In 2018 she was an expert guide for Ama Waterways "Stained Glass Along the Enchanted Rhine River" cruise.

Mary's restoration work lives on in numerous collections, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters, Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, and Duke universities, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Morse Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the United Nations, and the Neustadt Museum of Tiffany Glass. In addition to many original autonomous panels, she created an original ensemble of eleven panels depicting the risen Christ and the four evangelists for the Cloister Chapel at Sea Island, GA.

Mary is survived by her husband, Steven; their son, Walker and his wife, Ana, all of New York City; her mother, Margaret Clerkin, of Sandy Creek; eleven sisters and brothers; fourteen nieces; eleven nephews; several in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many friends and associates in the stained glass community, here and abroad.

Mary entered the stained glass world at a time when few women practiced the craft, or ran their own studios. She carved out a unique place for herself in the male-dominated field through humble tenacity and a simple dedication to the perfecting of her art. She inspired everyone she encountered with her unwavering courage in the face of her disease, with her brilliant laughter, wonderful cooking skills, and, above all, her kind and generous spirit. Her 25 nieces and nephews adored her.

A private celebration of Mary's life, and the scattering of her ashes, will take place at a later date.

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To my international traveler and stained glass friend of over 30 years, you are greatly missed and you will always be loved and remembered fondly.
Thank you for our friendship.
Linda x

Posted by: Linda Cannon - Glasgow, Scotland, - December 31, 2020

Dear Steve and Walker, Dana and I send our deep condolences on the passing of Mary. This obituary is so beautifully composed, a perfect reflection of both Mary's professional life, the gift she was to her colleagues, and her personal life, the love, humor and generosity that she shared with family and friends, all evident in her smile. We will raise a glass to her tonight. With love.

Posted by: Frankie Dunleavy - Middlebury, VT - January 1, 2021

I first met Mary around 1985 when I started working at The Greenland Studio. Although at that time I had about 15 years of stained glass experience I was clearly under prepared for the work being done at this studio. Mary had a big influence on my stained glass education and shaping my future in the business. We stayed friends and colleagues for the last 35 years, and lifted many a glass together at conferences all over the world. Christmas will forever be a sad holiday for me.

Posted by: Vic Rothman - Bronxville, NY - January 2, 2021

Mary is already missed and will always be remembered.

Posted by: Audrey Cohn-Ganz - New York, NY - January 2, 2021

Mary's memories will of course include her stained glass and conservation work, but for me, it was her manner of discussing the stained glass work of others, and her wonderful conversations about life in general, and how the work of all stained glass artists enriched our own lives as well as others.

Posted by: Barbara Krueger - Hartland, MI - January 2, 2021

What a sad loss for the field of stained glass. Mary was an artist, a scholar, a dynamic and important mover and shaker in the profession.
I met Mary at the American Glass Guild conference--I am not sure which one. She was a person I really enjoyed talking to and being with as she was funny, insightful and caring. I will miss her very much and the field of stained glass will not be the same without her contributions.

Posted by: Judith Schaechter - Philadelphia, PA - January 2, 2021

Mary and I became friends because we were both involved in the restoration of stained glass windows. Her expertise was unquestionable, her aesthetic talent was that of a highly creative and thoughtful artist. However, it was the fundamental acts of her as a person which we so loved. Mary Clarkin Higgins was perfection. That personage of Mary was the inspiration behind everything she did. Her integrity, morality, and principals were her personal architecture and made Mary who she was. She had so much more than stained glass to teach our industry. Thank you Mary for all that you gave everyone you touched.

Posted by: Bill Cummings - Rio Vista, CA - January 2, 2021

Mary was a mentor and a friend to me while we served on the board of directors of the American Glass Guild. She was an inspiration and welcomed me into her studio and her home. She shared recipes with me and I will always remember her warm heart and bright smile.

Posted by: Rebecca Hartman - Greenwood, SC - January 2, 2021

Condolences to the family. I knew Mary through the AGG. A beautiful soul, remarkable woman and teacher.gentle in nature, and caring about others.always a smile and willing to help. She will be missed by all who knew her. She leaves an amazing legacy in her works and accomplishments.May her memory be a blessing.

Posted by: Doris Cultraro - Germantown, NY - January 2, 2021

Mary founded the American Glass Guild with me and a few others. I started to list all she contributed to the AGG, and realized that I couldn't possibly do justice to such an enormous task. Suffice to say, the organization would not be what it is today without Mary. We worked closely on the Board and on many of the conferences. Mary became a trusted friend. I will miss her.

Posted by: Maria Serpentino - Needham, MA - January 2, 2021

I met Mary for the first time in july 1995 in the restoration studio of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY). She was so enthusiastic about a restoration of an 16th cent. stained glass panel. Since then we met on colloquia in the States and in Europe, or on facebook. I admired her challenge on stained glass we shared. Was happy to meet up with her 1,5 year ago in Gent, when she visited me with Steve, during a tour in Europe to see 'stained glass'! I'll miss you dear Mary.

Posted by: Aletta Rambaut - Gent-Wondelgem, - January 3, 2021

Please send my condolences to Mary's family. She was a very nice person and a talented Artist. I first met Mary at Mel Greenland's Studio in 1977 where she was dedicated and hard working co-worker. I happily attended her Studios open house some years ago and congratulated her on the success she achieved due to her many years of hard work....She will be missed....

Posted by: Daniel Herbst - Brooklyn, NY - January 3, 2021

A long time ago a man called Obama ran for President - and he won. On election day November 4th 2008 my then small daughter Lila and I ran into Mary and Steven going to the polls in Stuyvesant town, it was not yet light out. We expected long lines. We walked together giddy with excitement that he might be elected the next President. That night we gathered in the Higgins living room in Stuyvesant to watch the results. We shared joy and happiness and hope. It was a great feeling to be with Mary and Steven and to witness that election. What a happy night!

Posted by: heidi olson - New York, NY - January 3, 2021

Remembering Mary: Mary's thoughtfulness ran deep: ranging from protecting her unborn son by wearing a mask while painting to teaching me, me an historian, all the technical knowledge I needed. What joy to recall Mary puzzling over the poorly arranged jigsaw melange of a medieval panel & then suddenly solving the mystery. Her aesthetic sense reached way beyond her own stained glass creations to, for a wild example, the perfect decoration for her dining room table: a colander! Now recalling: Mary's honesty not hesitation to say something "like it is"; her smile; her wit; her love of good food- caviar pie at the Knickerbocker Restaurant!; and always her great love of Steven & Walker. Mary's bravery, Steven's & Walker's support, in the face to the true depth & terror of her ordeal must stand as a example to all whom she touched

Posted by: Jean Farnsworth - PHILADELPHIA, PA - January 3, 2021

Years ago when looking for someone qualified to restore stained glass windows at Grace Memorial Chapel in upstate NY I spoke with Rowan LeCompte who told me that if we wanted someone really good he had one person to recommend - and put me in touch with Mary.
The chapel windows were gloriously restored - fortunate to be in the company of medieval churches, the National Cathedral, and others that have had someone so renowned and talented work on their windows.
More importantly, I have had the luck of having Mary as a friend for many years and counting her as a family friend - she worked with our daughters to create a window that captures a bit of their childhood ..... and Mary .... forever in glass.
We will miss her, but know that the beauty she created lives on.

Our heartfelt condolences to Steven, Walker and all in Mary's extended family.

Bob & Angela

Posted by: Robert Strong - Valley Cottage, NY - January 8, 2021

Posted by: Catherine Kaplan - Boise, ID - January 8, 2021

My deepest sympathies go out to you and your family in the loss of your daughter and sister Mary. You are in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.

Posted by: Susan Kellar (Davis) - Cape Vincent, NY - January 11, 2021

I am so sad to learn this news of Mary's passing. We had a chance to collaborate on some fine projects. I have always had a great amount of respect for her work. My sincere condolences to her family and friends.

John Wardell Clark
Aurora Illinois

Posted by: John Wardell Clark - Aurora, IL - March 26, 2021

Mary was a delight. Always helpful, caring, energetic and keen to learn all she could about stained glass and share it. She warmly welcomed my students into her studio, which became a highlight for them of their trip to New York. She is terribly missed. But she leaves a great legacy. Now, make window for heavenly light!

Posted by: Virginia Raguin - MEDFORD, MA - June 5, 2021
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